Something I’ve noticed recently when browsing the jazz sections of record shops is the proliferation of sub-genres among the Japanese artists. Just hearing the names is enough to get a fan excited about the apparent explosion of creativity.
For example, postrock jazz acts such as Fox Capture Plan or Mouse On The Keys are clearly doing something innovative with a combination of lingering piano melodies laid over complex drum patterns — all of it played loud. However, that volume also leaves them sounding more like alternative-rock acts, which has sometimes left confused retailers putting them in both the rock and jazz divisions of their stores.
Similarly, the electro jazz of Tokyo Zawinul Bach explores new territory by blending elements of jazz, hip-hop and electronica to create a distinctive sound with a definite jazz feel.
Then there’s Soil & “Pimp” Sessions, who have attracted some international attention with their self-described death jazz. Don’t let the name fool you, the music is rooted in more conventional jazz styles rather than the doom-laden noise-fest that the term initially suggests. What really sets them apart, though, is their energetic performances and flamboyant fashion, which have been the main driver in building up a fan base.
In addition to the aforementioned examples, the jazz section will often offer up a slew of surprises: heel jazz (of the dirty-rotten-scoundrel variety) from group I Three; grunge jazz from Yokota Hiroyuki Ethnic Minority; urban psychedelic jazz from Masaaki Kikuchi; anime club jazz (BlackQP ’67); or the appallingly named mixture jazz offered by Room56 (the music sounds much better than the genre’s name does).
In truth, however, this supposed genre explosion has less to do with creativity and more to do with marketing. The general perception of jazz in Japan is still one that sees it as relaxing and old-fashioned. This is the kind of music your cool father would like (and increasingly, your cool grandfather). With a lot of the examples mentioned above, the music is either reviving jazz sounds from the past or exploring similar new avenues to other more regular current jazz musicians, but it seems that the artists and record labels have been trying to get extra points with fans by creative labeling. And to some extent it’s working, with a younger crowd showing up to events held at both clubs and traditional jazz venues.
In the United States, on the other hand, a number of jazz musicians have actually been at pains to avoid using the term “jazz” when describing their music. Speaking on TV a couple of years ago, musician Esperanza Spalding asked people not to label her sound as jazz (something she has since retracted); and in 2011, trumpeter Nicholas Payton declared that “jazz died in 1959″ in a divisive blog post titled, “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore.” He stated that his music (and presumably that of his peers) is BAM (Black American Music) — not jazz.
Other acts have been trying to inject new energy into the genre through musical experimentation. The Robert Glasper Experiment and Erimaj have both been mixing elements of hip-hop and neo-soul with jazz, creating a distinct new sound that doesn’t neatly fit into a specific genre. Glasper’s latest album, “Black Radio,” has been a commercial success and has even earned a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Album, demonstrating just how successful he has been in distancing his music from jazz as it is commonly perceived.
In Japan the word “jazz” still has a certain cachet, though, because all of these sub-genres have opted to keep it. The hope is that by qualifying it in some way, it will help attract new fans. Even releases that don’t get tagged with a sub-genre increasingly feature words such as “aggressive,” “stylish” or “dynamic” on the packaging, coming off like an effort to look hip and modern.
I’m not convinced that Japan’s younger generation of acts has been as creatively bold or innovative as its counterparts overseas — yet. However, they do share a common desire to revitalize jazz and make it more relevant to ensure its future.
There is a danger that the purists may dismiss these new sub-genres, and there’s a real risk that many of the labels will look faddish in the not-too-distant future. Hopefully those purists can keep in mind that experimentation has always been part of jazz, and will continue to be so.
One thing that the boom in sub-genres has done in Japan is help make a new generation of listeners aware that jazz (and by that I mean jazz in the wider sense, not just the music from these sub-genres) can be exciting and full of energy. In the words of trumpeter Lee Morgan: “There are no natural barriers. It’s all music. It’s either hip or it ain’t.”
You can follow Sean Smith on Twitter at @tokyojazznotes.